Friday, July 19, 2019

What They Said

Sometimes a quotation from another artist has resonance for me. Here a some great quotes from a few of the masters and a painting by each.

John Sargent:
John Sargent, "Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent," oil on canvas 1886
"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."
"Make the best of an emergency." (speaking about watercolor)
"The thicker you paint the more it flows."
"Mine is the horny hand of toil."

Edward Hopper, "Early Sunday Morning," oil, 1930

 Edward Hopper:
"If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint."
"All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house."
"It's probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don't know. It could be the whole human condition."

Andrew Wyeth, "The Crossing," tempera, 2002
Andrew Wyeth:
"I'm much more interested in the mood of a thing than in the truth of a thing."
"When you lose your simplicity you lose your drama."
"It's a moment that I'm after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Finding a Subject

Some painters see subject matter everywhere. John Sargent is supposed to have commented that wherever he turned there was a painting to be made. Many artists paint happily every day in a seemingly endless stream of subjects. Others, while motivated to draw or paint something--anything--find themselves stymied. What to draw? Finding one's subject, even for the day, isn't always simple or easy.
Hoff, "Roman Umbrella Pine," watercolor, 4x6
In my own painting practice there have been pauses, cessations and complete halts over the years. The gaps were mostly the result of outside events beyond the scope of discussion. Beginning to paint again has usually been simple enough. The impetus when re-starting has most often been the emotional necessity to paint a particular subject--the need arises without thought. Sometimes the adoption of a new medium has been the way to begin working again. For example, years ago, after a long hiatus from oil painting I started working again by making watercolors instead. The experience of learning and using simpler (but less forgiving) water-based paint was stimulating, invigorating even. The new medium provided opportunities to explore and grow that had gone stale when I was using oils. Watercolor painting has the virtues of simple and portable equipment and ease of cleanup which gave me opportunities to work on site or outdoors. Furthermore, traveling with watercolor was simple so sketching opportunities were more available.

Hoff, "Banana," oil on panel, 6x8
But what about escaping from other fallow times? For me, a day inevitably comes when large works are finished or so preliminary there's little else to do on the large project. Then what? One way I use to keep working is doing small dailies. For a few years I did an oil sketch in my studio every day, usually 6x8 or so, mostly still life. The subject was often one or two objects placed near the studio window. Those "windowsill works" kept me looking, thinking, mixing and applying paint even if any larger works were temporarily stalled. Applying a time limit of less than an hour to finish one forced me to work to place strokes of paint deliberately and not waste time overworking.

Dailies provided me opportunities to study different aspects of painting technique or brush handling. In nearly every case, the subject was chosen at random.
Hoff, "Creamer," oil on panel, 5x7
Reasons for sketching a particular thing could have been interest in the object itself (like a banana with its peculiar yellows), or in how the subject looked in strong light (like a shiny coffee creamer), or in how to render water in a glass. So in my case there were several motives for each work. Some call the randomness of this approach "just paint something," which is a perfect description. The immediacy of choosing a subject and painting it in a short time frame provides a challenge and an opportunity for significant observation and concentration. Those short, timed yet spontaneous oil sketches provided wide learning opportunities and made the work a daily habit. I still do morning oil sketches occasionally, but these days I mostly warm up for the day with a digital drawing or two every morning.

Hoff, "1958 VW Bug," digital drawing
As to finding one's overarching subject, it seems to me that the best thing an artist can do is to recognize that true art is deeply personal. For the artist now, subject matter begins in the experiences, ideas, loves, hates, and more that populate an individual personality. It's probably not a conscious process for many, but nonetheless many artists' work clearly shows what passion(s) drove their work. As an example, consider Claude Monet--his passion was light and seeing the world, which for him meant gardens and countryside; he didn't paint cities much, nor figures. On the other hand, Lucian Freud was interested in the landscape of the human form and regardless of medium (he also etched), that was his subject for much of his career.

For me, cities and their people are endlessly fascinating--shapes, colors, shadows and lights, overlapping and intermingling--buildings, hurrying figures, signs, and vehicles too. The play of light over the city is always interesting and challenging. An abstractionist might say something similar about only the shapes, or maybe only light and color. For me, the subject is cities.

Choosing a subject means considerably more than looking for something to draw and paint.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Art and Air Travel

Hoff, "Lisbon Trolley," wc in sketchbook, 2017
For a long while, when traveling for more than a day or two I've carried along art supplies and made pictures. At first it was simply a sketchbook and pencil, then a watercolor set and paper (postcard sized and bigger). Eventually other art materials have come along too, but mostly I opt for portability. For an artist, sketching is a non-stop discipline.

But besides pencil or small water media outfits like those mentioned, can an artist take other supplies along on an airline flight? Some worry that their oil paint can't be brought onto airliners but the rules aren't so restrictive as they imagine.

Hoff, "Plum Point," oil on panel, 2019
Certainly since the rules regarding carry-ons have been changed, bringing oil paint and related supplies aboard--particularly liquids--has become a bit different. Inflammables can't be brought aboard any airliner (and were always banned), so solvents including mineral spirits, turpentine, alcohols, and so on are forbidden. But painters' oils--linseed, walnut, etc.--are not inflammable and are therefore allowed both in checked bags and carry-ons as is tubed oil paint, according to the Federal Aviation Administration rules available online. So for an oil painter it's simple enough to leave solvents in the studio and buy a small container on arrival. That said, in years past sometimes less-informed members of Transportation Security actually confiscated tubed oil paint in once in a while--it happened to a friend--but not so much today.

My own experiences traveling with oil paint have been uneventful. During the early part of this century when there was more apprehension about paint on aircraft I shipped my oil paint and materials ahead of time and shipped them back. Since the beginning of this decade I've packed my oils and supplies in a checked bag without incident. In general I do not travel with oils unless participating in a specific oil painting event.

For me travel supplies will continue to be a sketchbook or two, a few graphite pencils and a kneaded eraser, a few disposable technical pens, a waterbrush or two, and a small watercolor set. Besides that, these days a computer tablet and stylus round out my kit. All will fit into a single compartment or two of my carry-on bag and any part of the kit except the tablet slips into a convenient pocket. For me, travel should be light.

For a complete list of banned and allowed items for airline travel see the FAA website.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Kinds of Paint

In the past one kind of paint predominated for artistic purposes, even if other kinds of paint were available. For example, very ancient paintings were made with encaustic, if the famous Egyptian burial portraits of two millennia ago are any indication. But egg tempera (water-based), was the main paint of classical antiquity, another half-millennium later. But it seems that paintings were very occasionally made made with oil-based (nut oil) paint during those times too. Nonetheless, tempera's ubiquity lasted into the 15th century or so. Tempera was then superseded by oil painting and became almost unknown. Watercolor did become the sketcher's friend from the 18th century on but wasn't predominant. And so art stood until the mid-20th century. The list of paint types has lengthened in the ensuing seventy years to include traditional watercolor, gouache, casein, egg tempera, acrylic, and water-mixable oils. Other media now are considered painting, too, including pastel and (for some anyway) colored pencil.

Hoff, "Portrait of Bill," oil on canvas. Private collection
Nevertheless, oil painting is still considered the queen of mediums. Oil paint remains the art medium of choice mostly because oil paintings are desired by the market. Oil paintings are considered more durable. Oil paintings age well, when constructed well. Oil paintings can and do become heirlooms, particularly family portraits. Oil paintings command higher prices and investor interest. Oil paintings are a centuries-old tradition. Because of the amount of time needed to master a new kind of paint, plus the work and time involved, and potentially reduced income afterward, why explore and use any of the alternatives to oil? Why, indeed. There are a lot of good reasons.

For me, and probably for many, it's useful to learn all sorts of paint. Using different kinds besides oils has improved my knowledge of the behavior of paint of all kinds. Each kind of paint has different properties--more or less opacity, differing drying speeds, and so on. Some paints have similarities too. For example, gouache, casein, and acrylic all dry very quickly. But gouache can be rewetted while acrylic and casein form a permanent film that is unresponsive to water. Another example: watercolor and acrylic behave similarly, if the acrylic paint is thinned sufficiently, but watercolor can be rewetted and acrylic can't. In contrast, oil paint remains "open" (wet) for days unless driers are added.
Hoff, "Taco Loco," watercolor on paper, sketched on site

Although the time and effort spent may seem enormous, working with newer mediums hasn't seemed onerous to me. Instead,  devoting a few hours a week outside my usual milieu provides continued practice in everything in painting--vision, composition, drawing, values, and so on--just with a different type of paint. It means continued practice on fundamentals while learning a new paint. In any event, it works for me.

So what kind of paint do I prefer? Well, it depends. My preference for studio paintings is oils, which is where my training and experience are. Oil paint remains workable for a longer period, makes more luminous images when used effectively, and has the advantages outlined above.

What about sketching?
Again, it depends. When doing a color sketch of a studio subject oil paint is preferable because the colors and paint can be matched as can the paint handling, drying and opacity. On the other hand, sketching outdoors is more convenient with watercolor than with oils, mostly owing to portability of watercolors. A pocket watercolor set and sketchbook are wonderful, lightweight tools that fit a jacket or jeans. I carry a small watercolor kit in my car too, and use it as often as possible. Watercolor sketches provide fodder for studio oils. You could use other water media--even acrylic--to sketch too.

What about acrylic, casein, and all those others?
They've been good learning tools and I use them from time to time for fun and experience. Here are a few thoughts.

Casein dries quickly, handles nicely, and dries to a nice matte finish. In many ways it feels like oil paint on the brush. (Gouache does the same things but can be altered with water.) Casein paint is useful if you have a covered palette to help keep the paint moist, because it dries so quickly. Casein is great for sketching--you can paint over mistakes in only a few moments. Casein has been most useful to me when making small, quick sketches. Other artists are making beautiful paintings in the studio and outdoors as well using casein.
Hoff, "Silver Creamer," casein on panel
Gouache or acrylic can be used for sketching more closely emulate oil paint at least in some artists' hands, so they are common substitutes in the studio, particularly. Illustrators used gouache long before acrylics were developed, mostly because the matte finish of gouache photographs well.

In short, learning the behavior and handling of as many different kinds of paint as possible has been a valuable pursuit in expanding my horizons. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day

Today is the anniversary of our nation's Declaration of Independence. The fundamental statement of that document is the concept that "all men are created equal." That statement of principle became a real beacon in the centuries that followed. The world is so very different now that one wonders what those who founded the United States would think. Would they approve?

Here is a 20x16 oil on panel of Uncle Sam, the symbol of the country, after an original by the great J.C. Leyendecker.
Hoff, "Uncle Sam in the 21st Century," (after Leyendecker) oil on panel, 20x16

Independence Day
July 4th

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Past Favorites in Reproduction

Many artists offer reproductions of their works. After all, an original oil painting can only be sold once, but a print of that painting can be sold many times. If an artist pays attention,to the volume of prints sold it might be a rough insight into popularity of a particular work. Although there is no statistical significance to a simple insight it may provide an interesting set of images to review.

Hoff, "NYC Spring," oil on panel
The most popular image I have made, based on the number of prints sold, is "NYC Spring," an image of a woman in a red dress emerging from an underground stair into a city street. The original was an 11x14 oil painting that sold four or five years ago, but since I've also sold a number of prints in various sizes. In fact, a print of this particular work sold an an arts festival last week and remains one that visitors to the studio mention favorably.

Another city subject has sold in reproduction nearly as often. This one is a view of the Chrysler Building at dusk and carries the title "Invictus," which is Latin for unconquered. It was originally intended as a comment on how the attack on New York was being overcome. This image in print reproduction continues to sell in the original size and larger. It was originally an 8x10 oil painting.

Although print reproductions haven't been a focus of my commercial efforts these past few years it's probably time to start offering more prints of these and other favorites. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Keepin' On

A lot of artists work until they simply can't any longer. They work well into what is certainly "old age"--Lucien Freud died in his late eighties, still painting in top form. He worked every day. Perhaps he was like me and feared not being able to start again. Some artists are literally afraid they'll never do more work. Isaac Asimov, the famous writer was so afraid to stop for anything that he typed away while riding in taxis. Something like Asimov, habit keeps me going. I wonder if it is what kept Freud at his easel.

Head of a Woman, graphite and chalk, 2016
For years, a part of my daily routine has involved drawing. I spend perhaps an hour drawing, nearly every morning. Subject matter isn't all that important. What is most important is the act of taking marker in hand and making marks. The marker doesn't matter either. It can be a school pencil and printer paper or a Wacom tablet and stylus. It could be an iPad and a finger (although that's an awkward way to draw.) The quality of the work doesn't matter at all. Many of my drawings never survive--they hit the wastebasket or I hit the delete button. Sometimes drawings serve as practice, sometimes as learning devices, and sometimes they serve as a way of loosening the creative "muscles," in a way analogous to a musician practicing scales or a dancer stretching.

Sometimes a morning drawing morphs into a more finished work, as happened with this study of a woman's head. I saw this expression in a dramatic video and tried to translate it into a study of my own. The young actress was exceptionally beautiful.

Thumbnail Sketches, graphite, 2016
It may be, though, that the creative well is fine--an idea that seems sure-fire comes to mind and off we go. Except that sometimes the idea comes but how to state it, how to fulfill the vision, doesn't. Or sometimes an idea comes with no time to do more than capture the essence of the subject. Or it may simply be that the idea isn't well-formed and needs more thought.

When testing ideas or compositions, a few thumbnail sketches, no larger than 4x5 or so, may help. Here I was working on a picture of coneflowers in a garden, trying to establish where to place any figure(s). Working out every detail of a picture is a time-tested way to further the work. Norman Rockwell made his familiar work seem effortless, but behind those masterful images was hours of thumbnail sketches, color sketches, full-scale charcoal renderings, and only then if he was satisfied did he produce an oil for his client. So an important consideration is that by doing the "busy work" first I not only keep the momentum going, I'm also trying to solve whatever problems the idea has posed.

Dredge, Newburgh, graphite and ink, 2019
Here is a graphite and ink sketch done on the spot along the Hudson River a month or so ago. There was a flat-bottomed barge--a dredge--pulled ashore along Newburgh Bay that caught my eye but I lacked time to paint it, having already begun on different subject. My intent was to get an impression of the subject and to chart the various colors and so on, although I did take a couple of quite phone snaps too. This sketch plus those snapshots gave me enough information to paint a full sized oil, shown below. 

The Dredge, Newburgh, oil on panel, 20x16, 2019
So for me it's mostly habit that brings me into the studio in the morning, but it's also planning and careful study of a subject before diving into a larger studio work.